Trade freedom a cause worth fighting for

ALTHOUGH Prime Minister John Howard returned from battered Washington without promises for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the USA, the odds are that one will be signed in the near future.

First and foremost, more Republican congressmen, the majority, and Republican-oriented “think tanks” inside what’s called Washington’s Beltway (the highway circling the capital) than Democrats appear to believe in realising the free flow of goods, capital, and ideas.

That’s good news for 270 million Americans and 20 million Australians, for security and commercial reasons.

Significantly, one of Washington’s more influential think tanks, The Heritage Foundation, the advice of which which many Republicans heed, and Republican Senate leader, Senator Trent Lott, have come out backing Australia.

Senator Lott has thrown likelihood of Congressional and Washington-based lobbyist opposition to the wind, stating in clear-cut terms that a FTA would be good both for the US and Australia.

This month he wrote to President Bush urging him to launch FTA negotiations as “a capstone for the relationship with Australia”.

Senator Lott stressed Australia had been and was one of America’s most trusted and reliable allies – it was time the US recognised this by embracing a formal trade treaty.

And senior executives from Alcoa, Ford and Southcorp Wines signed a letter for more than 100 companies, urging the administration to ignore objections of agricultural industries to a US-Australia FTA.

Vice-president Dick Cheney, a former congressman, made this remark with regard to Congressional dilly-dallying on June 23 1998 during an address titled, “Defending Liberty in a Global Economy”, at Washington’s influential think tank, The Cato Institute.

“When I was a member of Congress my constituents in Wyoming wanted me to worry about Wyoming,” he said.

“That is not surprising since that is part of the way in which our system was designed.

“You don’t always expect good national policy to be articulated by every member of Congress.

“But the President is expected to be the counterweight to that and to be able to stand up and be counted when necessary.”

And it’s not only key senior Republicans who appreciate what’s good from both countries, meaning nearly 300 million people.

In July the Heritage Foundation, which commissions leading experts to prepare its research papers, released a background document titled, “Time to Strengthen US-Australia Relations in Trade and Defence”.

“The Bush Administration has signalled its desire to establish closer relations with Canberra, and the opportunity to do so is clearly at hand,” it says.

“Australia is a pluralistic society that is strongly democratic and relatively open economically.

“This year the Government in Canberra, a Coalition of the Liberal and National Parties, proposed a bilateral trade agreement with the US. It also secured the support of the Opposition Labor Party.

“All trade agreements must confront the special concerns of sectors in each country that would be particularly affected by greater openness. The US remains protectionist in many areas of agricultural trade and in ways that are particularly detrimental to Australian farmers.

“Australia restricts the importation of certain agricultural products due to legitimate environmental concerns about its unique flora and fauna.

“Both restrict foreign investment in some sectors that are viewed as vital to national security. For example, they should liberalise investment in the telecommuni-cations sector.

“Air travel in both countries would benefit from an ‘open skies’ agreement, including cabotage, the legal restrictions to domestic carriers of air transport between two points within a country’s borders.

“Certainly, there is a need for a dispute resolution process for the disagreements that inevitably will arise over the trade agreement’s language and implementation.

“Many Americans believe their jobs are threatened by expanding international trade, and they think that the only solution is to include worker-protection clauses in trade agreements.

“History is proving Ross Perot’s well-known prognostication wrong: the North American Free Trade Agreement did not force US jobs to flee to Mexico and result in ‘a giant sucking sound’.

“They do not understand that a strong, vibrant entrepreneurial economy offers the best job protection.”

Under the heading, “Australia’s Remarkable Reforms”, the back-grounder said that, during the 1990s, Australia’s annual growth was a vibrant 3.9 per cent, with inflation lower than the US and Europe.

Australia’s GST was hailed, as were its new trade and investment openness, and labor market reforms.

“Australia is strategically in the Asia-Pacific region and an important trading partner. It is time to strengthen even further the ties that bind these two countries,” the Heritage Foundation paper says.

Western Australia’s grain, red meat, and fast ship-building sectors stand to benefit.

US-based Australian diplomatic and consular officials should collect all Heritage and Cato publications so far released, and those to be released in the future, on trade issues and enthusiastically hand them to members of Washington’s powerful but short-sighted farming and other protectionist lobbyists.

Time will tell who will prevail – Washington’s freedom-oriented think tanks plus Canberra, or Washington’s well-heeled lobbyists and running-scared parochial congressmen.

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